Kentucky’s Republican attorney general would be able to shut down abortion providers during the coronavirus pandemic under changes to a bill advancing in the state legislature.
A substitute to House Bill 451 expanding the attorney general’s powers to enforce abortion regulations quickly passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
The new language would give the attorney general power to enforce emergency orders issued by the governor banning elective medical procedures, “including but not limited to abortions.”
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has issued an emergency order banning elective medical procedures during the pandemic, citing the need to conserve medical resources.
Kate Miller, advocacy director with the ACLU of Kentucky, said that women seeking abortions would be in a “desperate situation” if the attorney general shut down the state’s two providers.
“People are in desperate situations right now and the government should never have the power to force someone to stay pregnant against their will,” Miller said.
If passed, Kentucky would join other states pushing to limit abortions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Anti-abortion groups have asked the federal government to urge abortion providers to “cease operations” and donate medical equipment to the coronavirus response, according to NPR.
The measure passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously and was put on the consent calendar, meaning that it can be quickly voted out of the chamber with a batch of other bills usually deemed to be non-controversial.
The Kentucky legislature is still meeting amid the coronavirus pandemic even though the Capitol is closed to the general public.
When asked if Attorney General Daniel Cameron thought abortions were elective procedures, his communications director Elizabeth Kuhn replied with the following statement
“Kentucky law is not absolutely clear in stating the Attorney General’s power to prosecute or seek civil remedies for violations of KRS 39A, KRS Chapter 216B, or KRS 311.710-311.830. This bill clarifies the law in these areas,” Kuhn wrote.
Cameron is the first Republican to hold the office since 1949 and campaigned heavily on the abortion issue, taking up the defense of Kentucky’s anti-abortion laws that have been challenged in federal court.
In a statement from January supporting Kentucky’s ban on abortions once a fetal “heartbeat” can be detected—about the 5th week of pregnancy, before most women realize they are pregnant—Cameron said it was his duty “to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, and it is my job to stand in the gap and defend Kentucky’s pro-life laws.”
Sebastian Kitchen, deputy communications director for Gov. Beshear, said that administration has not seen the bill because they are focused on fighting coronavirus.
“The General Assembly should set a good example for Kentuckians by passing budget and going home,” Kitchen wrote in a statement.
The original version of House Bill 451 would expand the attorney general’s authority to enforce abortion regulations. Current law only allows the attorney general to step in if authorized by the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Tamarra Wieder, Director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Indiana and Kentucky, said in a statement that lawmakers are trying to ban abortion in the state.
“The General Assembly is spending valuable time and resources exploiting a global pandemic to score political points instead of rallying behind Governor Beshear to respond to this crisis,” Wieder wrote.
“Our elected officials are putting lives in jeopardy. It is time to stop the shenanigans and shut this legislative session down now.”
This story has been updated.